Larry Page shuffles management, product groups at Google

March 14, 2013, 7:29 PM UTC
Google CEO Larry Page shakes up the “L-team”

FORTUNE — In my recent feature on Larry Page’s successful tenure as CEO of Google, I noted that Page had presided over a remarkably stable management team.

That was then. In a matter of two days, Page shook up the “L-team” (short for Larry’s team), shrinking Google’s product groups to five from seven.

On Wednesday, Page announced that Sundar Pichai, the senior vice president in charge of Chrome and apps, was also taking over Android, as the founder and leader of that unit, Andy Rubin, would be stepping aside. On Thursday, Google confirmed a report in the Wall Street Journal that Jeff Huber, who headed maps, commerce, and payments, would be moving to the company’s skunk works unit, Google X. As a result, the mapping efforts are being merged with the search group, under the leadership of Alan Eustace, and the commerce and payments initiatives are folded into the advertising products unit, headed by Susan Wojcicki. (The other two product area leaders of the L-team are Vic Gundotra, who oversees Google+, and Salar Kamangar, who is in charge of YouTube.)

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Google (GOOG) isn’t saying much about the changes. Page wrote that Rubin would “start a new chapter at Google.” Page, who is especially fond of big, ambitious projects (think Android, which in 2004 was a tiny startup headed by Rubin and is now powering 750 million smartphones and tablets), added: “Andy, more moonshots please!” Meanwhile, a Google spokesperson described Huber, a 10-year veteran of Google, as an “extraordinary executive” who “is eager to work in more of startup-like environment.”

While there are obvious parallels between the two moves, there are also major differences.

Android has been a runaway success, and Rubin’s departure was a bit of a surprise. It marks the ascendency within Google of Pichai, a quiet, analytic executive, who has led the Chrome project since its inception. In just four years, Chrome has become the most-used Internet browser. The Chrome operating system, however, which powers a handful of inexpensive laptops called Chromebooks, as well as the recently introduced Pixel, a high-end Chromebook, has yet to gain much traction.

After I interviewed Page in November, Pichai popped in for a meeting with his boss. The two circled back to talk to me for a few minutes, and they seemed to have a warm, easygoing rapport. As we discussed Chromebooks, Page remarked that the dream of making a $100 laptop, which appeared improbable just a few years ago, now seemed tantalizingly close, as the Samsung Chromebook costs just $250. It was clear that Page was pleased with Pichai’s work.

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In contrast, Huber’s group was a bit of a mishmash. Google has invested billions in maps over the past seven years, and the results show. The company is the overwhelming leader in digital maps, an increasingly important area as computing shifts from PCs to mobile devices. But Google has faced major challenges in commerce, where last year it shifted its product search to a paid model, and in payments. The company’s high-profile mobile wallet product appears to be stuck in neutral, even as those of competitors like Square are gaining traction.

When I asked Page about payments, he said Google has been doing exceedingly well in a little known, but vitally important area: accepting payments from its millions of advertisers worldwide. “We have very many small advertisers,” he said. “We’re also getting very good with Play on Android at accepting payments from users in many, many different countries, wireless, carrier billing, and all sorts of other forms of payment. We have probably a non-understood set of capabilities there.” That helps explain why Google’s payments team now works in Wojcicki’s advertising products group. Whether the move will help Google Wallet gain any momentum remains to be seen.